September 2011

Tiwanaku - Gateway to the Sun

The mysterious ruins of Tiwanaku are still not fully explored and some questions may remain unanswered.

By: Ed Young

Tiwanaku statue
Photo: Ed Young

Tiwanaku is a massive pyramid and temple complex located between the sacred Lake Titicaca and equally revered, snow-capped Mount Illimani in Bolivia’s Andean “Altiplano,” where llamas roam and condors soar. The site was built by the Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan culture that lived in the area from 1500 BC to its height in AD 500 to 950. Archeologists estimate the population of the city was from 250,000 to 1,450,000 people. A climate change caused a food shortage in AD 1000, and the site had been abandoned for centuries when the Incas arrived in 1445.

The site was developed from about 300 BC to about AD 300, as a moral and cosmological center to the Tiwanaku culture, and a place of pilgrimage. Since the Tiwanaku did not leave any written records, exact dates and the significance of the buildings are the subject of speculation.

Erich von Daniken writes that it was a landing zone for ancient astronauts (an idea that Bolivians find offensive) and, indeed, that this is where the aliens will land in 2012. Von Daniken says that Tiwanaku is the most unexplainable of all the unexplainable places he has studied; legend says that it was built in a day. Given the mysterious and evocative location, and the immense size of the temple complex, it is quite easy to imagine space ships landing. The sculptures evoke, if not astronauts, then deities of an unearthly origin.

The temple complex was “discovered” by a conquistador named Pedro Cieza de León in 1549, and it is safe to say that his mind was probably just as blown as the minds of the people for whom it was built to impress, as well as modern travelers, for whom even a trip to Machu Pichu is insufficient preparation. When the conquistadors found huge statues of a female goddess, they carved a cross in her forehead, and quickly buried not just the statue, but as much of the complex as possible. Nevertheless, scientists began trying to explain its origins almost immediately. The pyramid here is nearly the size of the great pyramid of Khufu, and may have interior chambers. Tiwanaku is about 44 miles west of La Paz, about an hour and a half by bus. You may not run into Shirley Maclaine here, but you will be forced to re-evaluate practically everything you know about western culture.

Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials by Erich von Daniken, New Page Books.

Temple site
Photo: Ed Young
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